The NEW The closing of the german mind
The tension between past and future is threatening to tear western
societies apart. Racism and nationalism are the traditional
responses to future possibilities. We have long had the means to create
a different and, hopefully, better world. It seems
that what we need is metaphysics for a life without certainties or plans.
I often ask myself: when exactly is it that we notice a change has taken place, either in the world or in ourselves? I also wonder how we can tell or show others that something has changed if they haven’t noticed it themselves. And I debate with myself what the consequences, both personal and political, are if people are either oblivious to change or simply choose to ignore it. How should we deal with the dichotomy of knowing and not knowing—or not wanting to know, especially in these times of rapid change? Or, to put it another way, perhaps the major conflicts of our times are simply conflicts of latency—that is, simultaneity—and the battle between the old and the new?
I would say the new has already been around for quite some time. Take climate change; this is not a future event, but a reality which is already determining mankind today while most of us are still grubbing around in the past for solutions. Less coal, less meat or more electric or solar power: while these approaches are not wrong in themselves, they make no attempt to deal with the world of tomorrow, with its far more radical, far more system-critical issues. Or take genetic research, robotics, AI, all of which will fundamentally change our conception of mankind. Or, in more general terms, digitalisation, which fragments mankind on the one hand while creating new interconnections on the other. Humanity has long been living under the spell of the future, but our reflexive responses are mostly still the same as ever; old words, old mindsets.
It is difficult to respond to new questions with old answers. The friction caused by this dilemma is currently in evidence on all sides. It tugs and tears at the prevailing circumstances, forges angry alliances, seeks simple solutions and simple slogans. And suddenly, the nation has once again become the answer to many questions and the population is once more split into categories of inclusion and exclusion, with the majority holding sway over who belongs and who stays outside. Confronted by this complexity, many people are seeking the protective sanctuary of the present behind walls of not knowing or not wanting to know. We are here is the moral minimum to which they are withdrawing, a refuge for those aiming to hack a system of ethical values out of egotism.
Borders are going up once again, around countries and inside heads. Entry is denied to messages from the future: in one case, refugees speaking of the misery, yet also the vitality of the new world; in another, new ideas and new technologies that may change the very face of democracy, or work, or even the image humankind has of itself. In other words, the picture of our world, shaped over thousands of years, is about to undergo a genuine caesura which people are preferring to ignore—or so it seems to me, particularly in Germany. However, if we fail to acknowledge the new, we will be unable to find answers to it. This intellectual and emotional disconnect between a world that is unfolding and a world that is closing is the force that is shaping the spiritual life of our times.
Of course, this also has political consequences. What can be summarised under the rather woolly term of populism could be generally regarded as a revolt against globalisation and modernity in all its complexity, implying not least a certain degree of hatred reserved for the elite. This involves a situation whereby education, which might speak of imminent changes, is regarded as a threat and, consequently, as the enemy. It is the attempt to radically reduce contradictions to create a hermetically sealed world image that is so clearly in evidence in extremism, in Trump, the Front National, the AfD, and all other authoritarian responses to the present day. However, as the name already indicates, extremism is only the outer end of a spectrum which is connected to the rest of society, and the trends towards isolation, escape and suppression do not simply appear out of thin air.
Turning to Germany for a moment, for at least a decade German society has been permeated by a process of regression and refusal to acknowledge reality, a process which has many facets and even a face: Angela Merkel. The issue here is not to point the finger and make the German Chancellor solely, or even predominantly, responsible; it’s not that simple. As the elected representative of German society, she is rather more symbolic of a general despondency and denial of the future as well as of a de-politicisation, which has ultimately facilitated the re-politicisation of the right wing. If one no longer has any arguments left in favour of anything, it is only natural that the arguments put forward by the radicals suddenly seem more attractive than the ritualised rhetoric of centrist politics.
In other words, there is great danger in the refusal to confront the new. It is already on the way, for that is its nature, its essence, its urgency and its dynamism; and if in doubt, it is worth reminding ourselves that those who genuinely oppose it are better armed, either in their refusal or—as we have seen in the elections in the USA and Germany—in their application. The strength of the old in alliance with the tools of the new was epitomised by the Twitter bots, allegedly controlled by the Russians and agitating for Trump and the AfD; epitomised by the rise of social media platforms as a political power, suddenly robbed them of all their rationality of theoretical communication. The air becomes thin and rarefied in isolation, yet air is needed for thought. It is obvious that in order to preserve the openness of a society, we must take the risk of ushering in the new.
Denial of the present, or closing of the German mind, the social consensus of not wanting to know, has been reflected in certain parallels between political and technological developments. From the financial and economic crisis of 2007 onwards—itself a sign of ignorance of the prevailing conditions and, above all, of the faults in the economic system of capitalism distorted to fit neoliberal lines—through to the European debt crisis since 2010, where Germany’s fixation on austerity diverged widely from the calls from media
and political opinion abroad to boost demand, right up to the crisis of 2015, which was less a refugee crisis and more a crisis over the acknowledgement of so many deaths in the Mediterranean throughout so many years, and of the plight of the Syrian population caught up in a long-ignored civil war until finally, the victims and many others found themselves at the German border, waiting to come in …
This decade has seen a crisis in the newspaper industry, resulting in Germany increasingly shunning the media and becoming more introspective, particularly in terms of the media; the country recognised only its own viewpoint and its own rationale, and thus failed to meet the requirements imposed by its new geopolitical dimensions and its responsibility within central Europe. It has also been the decade of far-reaching, or, as it is sometimes called, disruptive technological change spawned by media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp. These platforms have helped to reconfigure the public arena and, with it, the political landscape. The double denial shaped German society; while the uncharted territory of the internet and of other countries in general was initially dismissed or stifled by blanket negative judgements, while the apparent affluence which only helped to conceal growing social inequality and the stability which has always been a fetish of the German Republic were both factors in this renunciation of the present. What some noticed, but many did not, was that the country changed more or less covertly into what the Brazilian philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger has described as a “low-energy democracy”.
Germany is not alone in this. The phenomenon is seen in all the major Western democracies, all of which have a problem with the system of representative democracy, because the idea of representation on which this form of politics is based originates in a pre-technological and, above all, pre-digital era. If attendance is accessible at any time, if transparency in decision-making is required, if the pace of life increases and the pace of the political world speeds up in tandem because everything happens instantly at the touch of a button, then the parliamentary system, born out of a different historical era, will be forced to adapt. People, as the inspirational Roberto Unger says, must regain the spotlight. It is a classic conflict between the crowd and the core – that is, the masses and the decision-making heart of society, according to influential writers Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson; or “practice over theory” and “systems over objects” in the words of Joi Ito, Head of the MIT Media Lab.
However, after spending a year in the USA and following many discussions with people involved in new technologies, my impression is that it is primarily the thinkers and practitioners who see and are familiar with the realities presented by the digital world, and who invent new ideas for dispelling this duality, which in actual fact is not really a duality at all; in other words, ways of ensuring that thinking about new aspects of technology can generate ideas about new aspects in politics and society. A key realisation of French philosopher Bruno Latour was that technology is never apolitical. In the situation of the internet and of digital tools, technology is never purely technological. Viewed from this perspective, it constitutes more than a mere change in the machinery that we use or that direct and dominate us. Rather, it represents a way of thinking, living and working and should be regarded as such.
In other words, the new is brought into the world by technology. However, it is increasingly showing its true nature in fundamental changes in the ways in which how human beings treat each other. Philosophers such as Roberto Unger have grasped this insight and are seeking to identify new potential for change in political and social action in this spirit of the “vanguardism of the knowledge economy”, as Unger calls it. This means the methods and insights, in this specific case, of the world-changing industry we superficially equate with the epithet Silicon Valley. The name alone now provokes vague stirrings of resentment, and there are good reasons for criticising the work and the social and economic consequences of organisations such as Facebook and Google. Nevertheless, as Unger says, it is wrong to ignore or reject the spirit of experimentation, the philosophy of failure, of teamwork, of empowerment and, in general terms, of the individual within this explosion of knowledge. Like many others, Unger—a left-wing philosopher of non-Marxist persuasion—is attempting to create a link between the classical humanism of the Enlightenment, which placed man in the spotlight and granted human beings authority over their lives and actions, and the contemporary world, beset by all the opportunities and problems which technology has brought in its wake. He describes the battle between the old and the new in our time as part of a scenario in which the Fordist work model and mindset, i.e. the industrial mass-production which helped shaped the 20th century and continues in factories, state institutions and bureaucracy, is in conflict with the post-Ford working model and mentality which will influence developments in the 21st century. His concern is to ensure that the coming wave of social emancipation and fairness works with, not against the technological realities of our time and of the future. However, this requires fundamental reconsideration, especially in Germany, of our relationship with technology, beyond the two opposing positions of techno-utopianism and techno-fatalism.
This requires more people to know more about what awaits us from the laboratories of the future. It requires political thinking that acknowledges climate change and recognises the Anthropocene as a moral issue, developing conclusions as to what action must be taken from this basis. It requires political and social practice to develop beyond what are currently heralded as reforms, be they issues of, say, raising the retirement age, or how to create and maintain a fair health service. These questions are not irrelevant for the present. But they should be discussed against the backdrop of what awaits us and what is possible, without pessimism or blinkers, but also without the blind solutionism on which prophets of the digital age are so fond of sermonising: a doctrine of salvation offering solutions to problems that may only arise when someone thinks about how to solve them.
In principle, everything will have to be re-thought. It is not enough, as so often happens in politics, to merely waffle about education, particularly our currently applicable knowledge of languages, science and culture. Instead, it will require a genuine explosion of knowledge on the part of mankind, comparable at the very least with the explosion of potential opportunities taking place in technology. It needs a conscious perception of how the situation will change for humans when machines can complete many tasks better and faster than we can and will increasingly replace us in the 21st-century world of work. Compared with the rest of nature, mankind is a relatively young species and will have to acquire a new and different self-understanding. Humanity is both more effective and more important—as observations of human influence on nature and the climate show us – and, at the same time, less effective and less important from the perspective of the technical revolution. Human beings must more clearly define themselves and, first and foremost, their relationship with others. “Risk before safety”, says Joi Ito, “resistance before submission” – and not a map to find our way in the present and the future, but a compass instead. In other words, in order to acknowledge the new, what we need is a form of metaphysics for a life based on neither certainties nor plans.